30 June 2009

CYCLING VIETNAM - Svay Rieng to Saigon








26 June 2009
Cu Chi to Saigon
38km


With over 3 million motorcycles in Saigon, I have never in my life seen so many motorcycles! Saigon is a vast sprawling area, spreading nearly all the way from the Cambodian border to the South China Sea. Needless to say it was a short but stressful ride. Once in the city centre it was still the task of finding accommodation. There were hundreds of hotels, but finding a specific one was quite a task.

We took a walk to the market to stock up with the normal essentials. Ernest bought some new underwear/pajamas at a road stall, thank goodness for that (and not just any old shorts, but Kalvin Klein – the price seems to suggest it may be a reject, so we’ll have to see if it lasts).

Saigon is a modern buzzing city were one can find tall slick skyscrapers next to ramshackle eateries and motorbike repair shops. The strange thing is also that everyone refers to the city by its old name Saigon instead of T.P. Ho Chi Ming city, but the only one’s who refer to it by it’s proper name seems to be the officaldom.

25th June 2009
Svay Rieng Cambodia to Cu Chi Vietnam
87km

Under scores of “Hellos” we left Cambodia and entered Vietnam. The border crossing was as smooth as anyone can wish for (of course, we already had visa’s). It was well organized and it was just a case of showing your passport, getting it stamped, and walking through.

Once on the road we immediately experienced more traffic. The road was in good condition but extremely busy. Once we reached Cu Chi we decided to find a room and check out our new environment a bit, change money, and check on prices. The local currency is Dong and equates to 17 or 18 thousand dong to one US Doller. So going to the bank leaves you coming out with a bag full of money (not really, one note may be for 100 000 Dong).

The idea of first going to visit the Cu Chi tunnels went out the window as it didn’t look as exciting as I’d initially thought

I could soon tell that the language was going to be a huge problem here. We tried a local restaurant down the road, but with the menu was only in Vietnamese, it was a huge task. It ended up with the restaurant owner phoning a friend who could speak a little English - still we did not manage to get simple meal like fried rice with vegetables (we got shrimp rice, but I was so hungry I guzzled my fair share, vegatarian or not).



22 June 2009

CYCLING CAMBODIA - Kampot to Svay Rieng














































14 June 2009
Kampot

The only downside about Cambodia was the feeling that one got that you were constantly being ripped off. It was not the same as in Africa or the Middle East were bartering was a way of life. In Cambodia you got the feeling that the price quoted was purely because you were a foreigner. The assumption is that all foreigners come loaded with bags of dollars. Patience and a sense of humor (neither of which I have after a long day on the bike) was thus needed when shopping for the smallest item.

At least there appeared to be less snakes than in Thailand, no doubt due to their prominence on the local menus. Ants were a much bigger problem and anywhere one stopped along the road, you normally got attacked in no time.

15th June 2009
Kampot to Kep
25km

25 km along a bumpy, statue filled road, brought us to the sleepy seaside village of Kep. Most junctions were marked with a statue. So directions were easy i.e. go straight on at the rhino and turn left at the horse! On the way in we spotted a bakery and bought a loaf of bread. Then the challenge was on to find something to put on the bread (unsuccessful). The lack of shops meant that supper would be instant noodles on bread.

There was not much to see or do in Kep and after a stroll along the coast around to the beach, I think we’d seen about everything. We tried to do some shopping at the Crab Market, a long row of little restaurant/shops offering mainly grilled seafood (no good to a vegetarian like me). It is however fantastic to think that walking along a pitch dark road at night is totally safe.

16th June 2009
Kep to Kampot
25km

I tried to go to the nearby island but the weather was getting really bad, (the rainy season had definitely arrived) so I decided to give it up and rather return to Kampot, were there were more facilities.

Once in Kampot I visited the local market (just across the road) and , like all other markets its crowded, hot and cramped but again the range is vast. This includes large quantities of MSG (totally necessary on instant noodles).

The weather came in and it bucketed down all day. Heavy rain, thunder and lighting confined us to our room for the rest of the day.

Drinking tap water is also a big no no, but for Ernest it proved no problem as he purified it by adding two parts of the cheap local Mekong Rice Whisky to one part water!

17 June 2009
Kampot

The rain continued through the day, but I made use of an hour or two of clear weather to visit the nearby cave temple on the back of a moto. We slipped and slided through the mud past rice paddies and small villages until we reached the cave. Once there, local kids offered to act as tour guides (for a small fee of cause). A stone staircase leads up the hill and down into the cave, where the kids pointed out the shapes of various animal outlines on the cave walls. Inside the cave there is a 7th century brick built temple dedicated to Shiva. The view of the surrounding countryside from up on the hill was also magical.

Cambodia is also the first country where I have encountered the Happy Herb Pizza (pizza a la ganja) so if you not into smoking, just have a pizza!

19th June
Kampot to Takeo
85km

Ernest and I parted ways again, the weather looked clear so I set off towards Takeo. It was once again a beautiful ride on a narrow bumpy road with potholes the size of small cars. I arrived in Takeo around lunch time, which gave me plenty of time to walk to the nearby market. I found some fruit, corn on the cob and something that I still don’t know what it was (it was good nevertheless). I also found some not so edible food, dog!! I passed that by without as much as a glance in its direction and decided to stick to instant noodles.

20th June 2009
Takeo

My guidebook stated that one could get a boat to Angkor Borei, at the canal. Being unable to negotiate a reasonable fee, I decided to take a moto instead. I soon discovered why a person is supposed to take a boat. There was no road. On the back of the motorbike we flew through rice paddies, potholes and along dirt tracks. I was bouncing like a rag doll with arms and legs flying in all directions, clinging for dear life to my camera bag. Once in Angkor Borei there was little to see in this 5th century city. What was once the capital of the area is now a poor village with just a few houses on stilts. There was however a small museum with artifacts found in the area.

The nearby Phnom Da was more interesting with an overgrown temple situated on top of a hill accessed via 142 stairs. In addition to the temple there is also a few man made caves. After I spotted a bright green snake slithering down from the cave ceiling it was time to retrace my steps to the motorbike, and back to Takeo town. When I arrived I found Ernest who, by total coincidence, had just arrived at the guest house where I was staying.

21st June 2009
Takeo to Neak Luong
131km

What an eventful day it was. Firstly, I was very grateful that I’d met up with Ernest again. Halfway through the day my front luggage rack broke again, and typical of Ernest, he has everything except the kitchen sink in his panniers. After fixing the rack with some rope we set off again. The road was in very poor condition, very narrow and extremely busy which forced us to cycle on the uneven gravel next to the road. We often had to do some late swerving to avoid the loads of food stalls, selling all kinds of nibbles including dried frogs.

The idea was to cycle about 90km and then carry on again in the morning, but somehow we missed the town we had in mind and had to carry on to Neak Luong where there was reported to be accommodation. We were hoping the reports were correct, as we were caught in the rain and due to the earlier repairs to my bike we were eventually cycling in the near darkness. Neak Luong is on the other side of the mighty Mekong River and once in Kampon Phnum we took the car ferry across the river. Fortunately the ferry seems to run 24/7 as it was already dark by the time we got there. Food vendors operate on the ferry sell all kinds of unidentifiable items (and again the ever present dried frogs).
In the town, close to the ferry terminal, we found a nice big ground floor room, and we were even able to take the bikes inside (good thing, as things were wet from the rain and needed to be aired). Ernest went shopping for food and (surprise surprise) returned


22 June 2009 - Neak Luong

Neak Luong is not a place where you want to linger, but our visas for Vietnam were only valid from the 25th and our bikes desperately needed attention, so we stayed for another day. We found a place to wash the bikes and Ernest gave it a thorough oiling.

As this is the place where all the busses has stop to cross the river, there are plenty of food stalls lining the road. The foodstuff will never fail to amaze me, as nothing is sacred and one can buy small deep fried birds, cooked turtles, crickets, you name it.

One interesting bit of information about Neak Luong, (I read somewhere) was mistakenly bombed by an American B52 in 1973. Many people (137) were killed and 268 were wounded. The US government offered to $100 to the families in compensation for each person who died, and fined the navigator of the aircraft $700.

23-24 June 2009 - Neak Luong to Svay Rieng - 65 km

A short ride to Svay Rieng, where we found a very comfortable hotel. We needed to spend the next two days there as we could only enter Vietnam on the 25th. We arrived early and took a walk to the local market to buy some veg and fruit (mangosteen and rambutan). Ernest also found some rice cooked in a banana leaf, with something inside (we could not seem to figure out what it was (it was however very filling and very sticky). There wasn’t really anything to do except to walk down along the river promenade with its foodstalls.

The interesting thing about rooms in Cambodia is that they mostly come with disposable toothbrushes and a comb (not disposable and mostly pitch black). Looking at the state of the combs they definably get used! Who on earth would use a well used communal comb?

Being a vegetarian, I always like to go into a restaurant and check what’s on the menu, but normally I’m hardly inside or I’m seated with a glass of ice in front of me. So, looking at the menu and pointing to an item asking what it contains (and the cost) often results in me having the prepared meal in front of me in no time at all. This normally results in Ernest having to eat two meals.

14 June 2009

CYCLING CAMBODIA - Phnom Penh to Kampot




2~ 5 June 2009 Phnom Penh

In Phnom Penh I met up with Ernest again. We did the usual thing i.e. laundry, internet etc. I also made use of the time to explore the well known markets of Phnom Penh. The markets are large and busy, selling anything imaginable, from rolls of cloth, meat, jewelry, dry food and veg. I was so inspired that I even bought some souvenirs for my family and friends back home.

Sending the parcel was however a whole mission in itself. The night before posting it, Ernest (in true Ernest style) securely wrapped and taped up the items in a box. The next morning at the post office they insisted on reopening the parcel to check the contents (Ernest volunteered to do the “opening” to ensure that it could be sealed again). Another problem was that the postage cost was many times that of the contents!

We also visited the Tuol Sleng museum (a former school converted to a prison and torture house by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970’s). In these forlorn looking school buildings thousands of people were detained and tortured to death, or sent to the nearby killing fields and buried there in mass graves. The visit left me in a dark and depressed mood and I did the only known cure for such a mood, I went shopping. I bought a brand new camera, as my existing one got wet a long time ago and has never been the same since.

6 June 2009 Phnom Penh ~ Traeng Tratueng 91km

Armed with my new camera we set off down the road. I clicked away all day, the photos were not all that good, but the quality unmistakable. What a small word, we met the New Zealanders John and Rosie and their son Dallas along the road, and stopped for a chat. The shoulder of the road disappeared at about that point, and for the rest of the day we cycled into the wind on the gravel next to the narrow busy road, which made for a rather slow ride.

Once in Traeng Tratueng we could not make up our minds whether to go to the nearby national park. The 30km uphill ride and the fact that we would be directly into the wind made up our minds for us, so we found a room in the town.

7 June 2009 Traeng Tratueng ~ Veal Rinh 97km

This day we cycled into the wind again, and mostly on gravel next to the road. Luckily we missed the rain, as a heavy storm passed so close that we could smell the rain. Once in the junction town of Veal Rinh the taxi drivers came running with $ signs in their eyes, all offering us a lift to the coastal town of Sihanoukville. According to them it was too far to cycle (about 50 k’s), and there was no accommodation in town. We declined the offer of a taxi ride, and amazingly found a cheap guest house on the main road a few metres from where we were standing!

Veal Rinh ~ Sihanoukville (a.k.a. Kampong Som) 8 June, 2009 50km

What a coincidence, we bumped into the New Zealanders again on their way in the opposite direction. It was a short and scenic ride to Sihanoukville, a large and touristy coastal town.
We arrived early and found a cheap room in Markara Guest House right across the road from Occheuteal Beach. Right on the beach there was a great restaurant where one could get a draft beer for around R4, and we sat there watching the sunset.

9 & 10 June 2009 Sihanoukville (Kampong Som)

We spent a couple of days swimming and relaxing. I also took my laptop into town to have it cleared of viruses again. (Boring!!). We also did some things on the internet, but couldn’t seem to open our emails.

11 June 2009 Sihanoukville ~ Ream National Park 30km

We were hardly on the bikes before we reached Ream National Park. It was far too tempting to pass by with only a glance. We found a basic room on stilts over the river, and rented an old wooden canoe to explore the nearby mangrove swamps for a couple of hours.

Our room had no running water or electricity, and the plank floor had wide gaps with the water below clearly visible (we had to be careful not to drop anything). However the view from the front deck made up for all that (the nearby local stilted huts, fisherman laying nets, passing boats, and the surrounding mangroves). That night we cooked our noodles while sitting on the deck watching the fireflies.

12 June 2009 Ream National Park ~ Kampot 81km

An extremely scenic ride along the coast, past river mouths and stilted fishing villages. On the outskirts of Kampot we headed straight for Bodi Villa, as according to the guide book it was a real retreat on the river. Our room consisted of a rather flimsy floating deck with woven bamboo walls, but what a view! We could just dive out the open river facing side of the room for a swim. Getting back on the raft (or in the room) was however a bit more difficult. Ernest complained of getting seasick, and as the place was booked up, we only stayed the one night.

Every now and then the strain of constantly being in each other’s company starts to show through. Although Ernest and I have known each other for more than 30 years, neither of us has previously lived permanently with a partner, and sometimes the reasons for that become very clear!

13 June 2009 Kampot town 14km

After an early morning swim, we packed up and cycled through Kampot town and were seemingly on our way to Kep (a “misunderstanding” ~ see previous paragraph). After some deliberation we returned to Kampot town where we found a more conventional and cheaper room. We did some laundry and relaxed, and for supper Ernest made himself some duck egg omelettes (I settled for something from our guest house kitchen instead!).

13 June 2009

CYCLING CAMBODIA - Sisophon to Phnom Penh

26 May - Thailand - Cambodia - 56km

Cambodia conjured up images of famine and mass killings and I was eager to see what it would hold for us – hopefully none of the above. After a lazy start, we cycled to the border via the border market. The market is a large area with over 3000 shops selling everything imaginable. Most of the goods seem to come from Cambodia in a steady stream through the border post, being pushed or pulled on numerous heavily loaded hand-drawn cart

First, we had to get a visa, which involved filling in a form and providing a photo, and then it was the “swine flu” checkpoint where our ears were probed again and our temperatures recorded.

Once in Cambodia we knew straight away that we were out of the well organized “Thailand. Thing”, where it’s a bit more chaotic (more what I’d become used to in recent times), They also drive on the right hand side of the road (the first time since Iran - a new thing to get used to). The Cambodians also seem very friendly and calls of “hello” could be heard from behind the banana trees as we cycled past.

Once we reached the first town, we settled for a room in order to sass out our new environment, change money, and get a new sim card. We found a room on stilts for $2 - a bit rickety, and one could see right through the floor boards, but it was a roof over our heads. Things also appeared cheaper than in Thailand. The Cambodian Riel is not very strong and R1 = about 500 riel. Alternatively, 1$ = 4 160 riel. Credit cards get you dollars at the ATM (which can be changed in the bank or on the street for Riel). At the markets, interesting enough, they quoted in Thai Bhat, dollars and Riels.

Here, like in Thailand, everything comes with a straw, even a tin of beer!

27 May - Sisophon - Siem Reap - 108km

I love being in a new country, everything is different, the food, language, culture and countryside. They seem to grow a lot of rice in this region and cows have a more worried expression than in India (they’re not that holy here).

The road between the border and Siem Reap is brand new (in fact they were still busy painting the lines) so we peddled along quite happily, past wooden houses on stilts, temples and rice paddies. We were passed by motorcycles with up to 3 pigs tied on the back, children on bicycles and motorbikes with trailers piled high with goods.

Once again, we were lucky to escape the rain and were safely in our room at Mommy’s Guest House before the rain came down. There we also met a long-term cycling couple from the UK who have been on the road from London for about a year.

28 May - Siem Reap - Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, now a UNESCO World heritage site, with its 1000 year old temples, was a pleasant surprise to me. I spent the entire day cycling around the ruins and feasting my eyes on these magnificent structures. Cambodia is a lush and wooded country and the buildings are constantly under threat of being taken back by nature. It was one of those days that I wished I had a good camera!

29 May - Siem Reap – Battambang - By boat

I decided to take the boat (bike and all) across the lake to Battambang and Ernest decided to remain on that side of the lake and take the road down to Phnom Penh (the capital). I would then proceed along the road on the opposite side of the lake. I left at 6h00 to get the boat at the floating village of Chong Kneas (about 13km) south of Siem Reap at 7h00. These villages move as the lake rises or recedes depending on the dry or wet season. The trip took 8 hours and although fascinating, I was pleased to reach Battambang.

These villages are complete floating towns with schools, restaurants and police posts. Some are built on barges, some on rafts and some on stilts. Needless to say, the only means of transport is a dugout canoe, and every household seems to have two or more. One can see small children rowing to school, women rowing along selling their fruit and veg from house to house and barges going to the market laden with coconuts and bananas. What a colorful site it was. I found a room at the Royal Hotel for 3$.

30 May - Battambang – Pursat - App - 110km

Cambodia, so far, has been fairly flat and a great place to cycle. Once again, I escaped the rain, although I could see it from time to time - sometimes on my left, sometimes on my right and sometimes dead in front. I shared the road with monks on foot, other cyclists, ox drawn carts and plenty of motorcycles loaded with the entire family.

Cambodia is by far the country that has surprised me the most. Mostly because I knew nothing of the country and secondly because I never expected the cities to be so developed. The cities have all the modern cons, fancy hotels and well-developed tourist infrastructures. The countryside is however still very rural with very primitive ways of farming.

31 May - Pursat – Kampong Chnang - 95km

Another great, great day. Shortly after I left town I turned off the highway and found the famed Bamboo train. - more a trolley than a train. With loads of locals and their goods, we sped off bobbing and swaying down the warped tracks and over rickety bridges, in a southerly direction. It’s a slow process, as once another trolley comes from the front, we all had to get off and the trolley lifted off the tracks to allow the other one to pass. Then we all got back on again just to get off a little while later. At around 11h00 I got off and decided to head back to the main road again. This involved a 30km cycle along a rutted and potholed dirt track.

Now I can truly say, “they do eat snakes”, they were selling fried snakes at a roadside stall. I did not try the snake but tried the bread roll with ice cream and condensed milk with a touch of sugar sprinkled on top! How’s that for a sugar fix!

On arrival at Kampong Chnang, I found a guesthouse where I met John and Rosie form New Zealand, whose son is currently working in Cambodia. After a beer, we went to one of the local restaurants (a great change from my normal instant noodles in my room).

1 June Kampong Chnang – Phnom Penh (the capital) - 93km

I cycled past small rural villages, rice paddies and sugar palm trees. The countryside was dotted with stupas and temples. Along the roadside, one could also see the famed Ondong Rossey pottery. I passed ox carts laden with pottery, obviously heading for the bigger markets.

Again I shared the road with merchants on bicycles, carting their wares to the villages. Gone were the days of Thailand’s fancy petrol stations (with 7-Eleven shops) along the road, but there were plenty small stalls selling petrol by the liter (in coke bottles), or in a big drum with a hand pump. Here one could also get refreshments i.e. water and cold drinks.

Once in the city I headed for “backpackerville”, an area with cheap guesthouses on the lake. These rickety wooden structures are built on stilts over the lake and not only provide a good sunset but also a cool breeze coming of the lake.

There was no shortage of eateries and one could pick and choose from Thai, Vietnamese, Italian and India, although these are fairly expensive, I could not resist the Indian restaurant and had my fill before retiring.